Point-Counterpoint: Art Requires Context

  Art Requires Context PRO

 By John Hutt

There is a story of a Russian man who went to the MoMA in New York, soon after it opened. Looking at the paintings he was furious, he could not understand them. He looked at a Picasso and asked, “What is this, it does not make sense!” His poor tour guide who had been chosen for her ability to speak Russian rather than her art knowledge was unable to answer. The man continued, outraged by the abstract nature of the work. Then another guest approached him, and spoke in Russian: “Friend, you make us all look bad. Imagine if this was mathematics on the wall. Would you be shouting that you could not understand the equations? Of course not.” After this conversation the man quietly studied the pictures and read the panels, then went home to no doubt read up on modern art.


This comparison between art and mathematics works well; it has a very simple beginning, that we learn in school; we get to the level of the ancient greeks, and perhaps in high-school we get to the level of Issac Newton. Then everything after calculus is considered specializing in mathematics/physics leading to a PhD, or in our case, a MFA degree.


There are as many definitions of art as there are art works. The constant fluctuations of new ideas, people and axioms enrich works almost as quickly as they date it. With this incessant drumming of new, newer, newest – comes the echoing old, older, oldest, and there we find context.


To fully understand a work it is vital to know when, where, why and by whom it was made. There is no art that does not answer these four questions when examined; a failure to do so is the fault of the curator, viewer or museum; never the artist.


Artists can be blamed for many things, but they will never be blamed for creating a purely aesthetic work. It the act of attempting a purely aesthetic work the artist is creating context. It is an unavoidable equal and opposite reaction that occurs. Tying back into mathematics, the most 'boring' number paradox is the attempt to find a number with no special properties, however the very act of being classified as dull now makes the number interesting.


There is a picture by Robert Capa, The Falling Soldier, which shows a man getting shot during the Spanish War a Loyalist soldier. The viewer has an immediate sense that the man is shot, and there is a war; but the picture becomes more tragic when we learn what he was fighting for, socialism against fascism and ultimately his party lost the war.


Capa's photograph proved to be staged – but does that matter? Knowing that it was staged we feel a sense of betrayal, that we were lied to; a documentarian turning out to be a fraud. However, the picture is still there - still important because of the context. It was staged to show what was really happening. The act of staging a photograph, pretending it was real and arguing about it for decades is simply context. Had The Falling Soldier been a painting there would be no argument; Picasso’s Guernica shows the same war in a less realistic light, as it is both painted and abstract – however it still elicits an emotion when we view it. It is in their intent, date and subject that these pictures are similar, only the medium and artists differ.


In the 20th century Robert Mapplethorpe's works are made more important by the scandal they created, the message they carried and the identity of the artist. The argument of 'what is art' continues to this day, and is still defined by it's context. Irrevocably attached to every work - literature, painting or photography - is a context that enriches and explains the work; any attempt to look at art in a detached matter simply gives another layer of context.


Art Requires Context CON

By Justin McCallum

The novelty of the first photographs were their representational reality. A painting - whether impressionist, abstract or surreal - cannot capture the lens’s innate ability to snatch the world and record it unforgivingly.


These visual etchings, whether on film, a glass plate or memory card, are individual and out of context. They are exactly what they are with nothing more and nothing less. And despite the movements to create non-representational, lensless, or abstract photographs, the core of photography is objective representation.


Capturing truth generated photojournalism’s heart and soul. Photojournalistic images serve as documents and are used by every news media outlet for their storytelling capacity. That distinct quality comes from the innate ability to objectively convey a message based solely on their aesthetic quality; an image that cannot singularly express the same sentiment, mood, or activity as its accompanying text is unsuccessful. One of the greatest complaints about conflict-heavy photojournalism, especially about war photography, is that the images are unspecific and vague: the picture could be of any battle anywhere. Even the famed Robert Capa image, The Falling Soldier, cannot tell us strictly from the image itself where, when, or why the infantryman is dying. The greatest photojournalism doesn’t even need a caption.


So why not hold other images to this same standard? Our own Editor in Chief once bemused that after making her first round though a gallery, she runs to the press table so she can figure out “whatever the hell I’m looking at.”


Is she an ignorant or unexperienced viewer of these cryptic images? Certainly not. So why do we place the burden of understanding on the audience and not the artist? Shouldn’t the artist’s intent or message be conveyed in their work without a disclaimer describing the process, philosophy, and product?


The current atmosphere of needing an ‘in’ in the industry or MFA degree turns fine art photography into an exclusive boys club where the layperson cannot properly appreciate an artist’s work.


Certainly, some art is enriched by knowledge about how the work was made. In Tim Hetherington’s Infidel, his portraits of sleeping soldiers are enriched by the knowledge he lived with them for weeks on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan. In The Americans, Robert Frank depicts the race relations, economic climate, and life in the United States in 1959 unflinchingly and without explanation. The mixture of performance art and photography created by Nikki S Lee clearly shows herself cavorting as and entering into different social groups - nothing more, nothing less.


The context adds an additional level, but it in no way defines the work.


For some like Hetherington, parts of the process can be apparent in the images, as well, depicting a clearly intimate moment to suggest the relationship between the photographer and the subject.


Century after century, literature was judged solely on it’s content and only recently under the school of Neo-Historicism has it started to take sociocultural context into account alongside critical theory. Literature is stored in a library, mixed amongst every other form of writing the world can offer, devoid of their history and estranged from their background or place. So sit pieces in most museums: stark against a white wall, contained within a frame, nothing more than the artist’s name, year, and home. Perhaps , then, it is time to take a note from historians, librarians, and museum curators and disregard context.


At the end of the day, though, we’re looking at a photograph on our home computer or in a gallery. That’s where we are: at our home or in a gallery - not standing next to the artist as they work. We are getting a glimpse of their context far removed, and should judge it as such: removed.


[Photo courtesy Joel Grey. Remains of the day/ Musée Magazine, Issue № 3]


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